Dubstep is a tricky one. Like electro or deep house, it can be a descriptor for multiple types of music that are often in direct opposition to one another but confusingly called the same thing.
Most Americans were introduced to dubstep around 2010, around the same time “EDM” starting popping up as a genre tag. America’s take on dubstep would be branded “brostep” and enter the mainstream consciousness via cellphone ads and other regrettable cash grabs.
Yet where dubstep came from — primarily London, Bristol and their surrounding 'burbs, hamlets and working-class neighborhoods — is sonically so different than where it ended up on American shores that they aren’t really the same thing. The only thing they have in common is that they’re usually instrumental (or feature a simple vocal sample, rarely a full-blown verse-chorus-verse), with slower tempos, and they sometimes drop into half-time or other tempo shifts. The similarities pretty much end there.
Dubstep is fiercely British music, its ancestral roots deeply entwined in the “hardcore continuum” of 2-step, U.K. garage, grime, jungle, drum 'n' bass and Jamaican sound system music. Its golden period was roughly 2004 to 2009, as loads of tunes came from often very young producers (a virtual boys’ club, FYI) and were featured at nights like FWD>> (still going) and Plastic People (R.I.P.), on labels like Hyperdub and DMZ (still going strong), and on pirate radio outfits like Rinse FM (now a “legit” broadcasting entity).
For a minute, it was the most interesting music anywhere. But then it hit America, got commercialized and became a self-parody slouching toward the same mindless pomp as nu-metal. It's not even that the music the U.S. guys have been making is the worst thing ever, but compared with their English counterparts, the American bros just look so much cornier doing it. But whether we're talking U.K. or USA, dubstep — like many other club and electronic subgenres — will never really die.
Like any proper sound system music, dubstep is recognizable by the low end, its sub-bass frequencies, and general ability to punch you in the gut and/or hit the brown note. This primer of early dubstep classics is absolutely not to be judged on laptop or phone speakers. If you have a decent sound system, bump it to these tunes. If not, don’t even bother.
10. Joker – “Gully Brook Lane” 
Liam McLean — aka Joker — emerged exactly when the scene needed him. “Gully Brook Lane” is a synth-y stroll down a smoggy, grimy alleyway that is as menacing as it is back-door funky.
9. TRG – “Broken Heart” (Martyn's DCM Remix) 
This remix is one of the first pieces of vinyl birthed into the world by seminal imprint Hessle Audio, and it sums up several decades of British club music in its six minutes. While the vocal sample and top line might feel like a deep house number, look under the hood and you’ll find skittering snares and low-end magic that are like the platonic ideal of dubstep.
8. Benga – “26 Basslines” 
Adegbenga Adejumo — or Benga for short — has been one of the scene’s leading lights in its second wave. In “26 Basslines” he creates a call-and-response, not with voices but with squelched-out bassline squiggles. Benga injects tangible personality into his pads and synths, setting him far from the middle of the pack.
7. TC – “Where's My Money” (Caspa Remix) 
Bristolian TC gets a rerub by Caspa (Gary McCann), one of the scene’s more prolific dudes. “Where’s My Money” samples a dial tone and voicemails based on the universal dilemma of getting payment from one’s label — it's a spiritual prequel to Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” This tune is probably closest on this list to the Transformer sounds of U.S. dubstep, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Caspa is one of the most cited figures in this transition of the sound as it moved west.
6. Coki – “Spongebob” 
A Croydon boy and co-label boss at DMZ, Dean “Coki” Harris is one half of Digital Mystikz along with Mala. He’s a mad scientist, and this was such a catchy tune in the context of when it was released that one Discogs commenter called it “the beginning of the end of Dubstep,” i.e., a harbinger of the brostep soon to come.
5. Digital Mystikz – “Haunted” 
Though credited to Digital Mystikz — both Coki and Mala — it’s widely understood that this tune is much more the work of Coki than Mala. It’s one of the untouchable platters in the dubstep canon that just plain works no matter what no matter the year or continent.
4. Mala – “Left Leg Out” 
Mala is quite possibly the most in-control dude from the first wave of dubstep. He is the culture’s spirit animal and his records fetch princely sums on Discogs. “Left Leg Out” is not your paint-by-numbers dubstep. It sounds more like the answer to the hypothetical: “What if Theo Parrish was born in the U.K.?”
3. Kode9 and The Spaceape – “9 Samurai” 
Hyperdub boss and Ph.D. in philosophy Kode9, aka Steve Goodman, is one of the scene’s torchbearers and true originals. Playing the role of RZA on “9 Samurai,” he samples the score for the Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai but wubbifies it and makes it his own. Poet/spoken-word artist and unofficial voice of early dubstep Spaceape (R.I.P.) lays down his “ten-ton” vocals on this gloomy, funeral standard.
2. Skream – “Midnight Request Line” 
Skream (Croydon’s Oliver Jones — they all have such innocent-sounding names, don't they?) has been producing music since his teens. Many of his early hits (like this one) were composed on the low-tech digital audio software FruityLoops, which kind of speaks to dubstep as a whole. It ain’t what you got, it’s what you do with it. And this, in many ways, is the top of dubstep mountain and ticks all the boxes: accessible but still heady; fast/slow, cheap and out of control; still influences American music in 2016.
1. Loefah – “Midnight” [produced 2004, released 2015]
Dubstep notoriously has many lost dubplates, bootlegs and white labels that never made it to “official” or commercial release. This ghost orchid by Swamp 81 honcho Loefah surfaced in 2004 and was the bane of trainspotters the world over. It finally got a proper release just a few months ago. And this one in particular underscores the “dub” in dubstep.